Category Archives: Blessed Virgin Mary

Annunciation to Mary

Today is the beginning of our salvation. Indeed, we rejoice in Mary’s “yes” to being the Mother of the Redeemer, and respond with our own “yes” today to God’s will in our lives.

In the Servant of God Father Luigi Giussani’s Meditations on the Holy Rosary, he writes about the Annunciation:

The Angel’s words could have astounded with wonder and humility the young woman to whom they were addressed. But they were not so astounding as to be totally unintelligible; they contained something that made them intelligible to the heart of that young girl who was living her religious duties. The Virgin embraced them to herself: “I am the handmaiden of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to Your word.” Not because she understood but, in the confusion that had become boundless because of the Mystery that announced itself by vibrating in her flesh, the Virgin opened her arms wide, the arms of her freedom, and said, “Yes.” And she stayed alert every day, every hour, every minute of her life. The Virgin Mary’s state of mind, that state of mind which determines an attitude and decides for it in the face of the occasion and the moment, how can we better describe the Virgin’s state of mind than with the word “silence”? Silence as memory filled to overflowing. Two things contributed to this memory, two things determined this silence. The first was remembering what had happened. What had happened preserved its marvelousness, its true mystery, its mystery of truth intact because — and this is the second thing — it had something that was present: that Child, that present young Man, that Son who was present.

Going to the Church Fathers is always a good thing: Saint Ireneus of Lyons teaches us that “For as Eve was seduced by an angel’s voice to turn from God betraying His word, so Mary was given the good news by an angel’s voice that she would bear God, and the latter was persuaded to obey God, so that Mary should become the advocate of Eve. And as the human race was bound to death by a virgin, by a virgin it was delivered.”

Agiosoritissa of the 7th century

Mother of God 7th centuryThis icon is of the rare Byzantine icon of Agiosoritissa (Mother of God) of the 7th century. It is said to be one of the few Byzantine icons that survived from the iconoclast era. The icon is said to have been in the Agia Soros chapel in Constantinople (hence the name in the title).

Indeed, a terrific gift to receive. The historicity of this beloved icon of the Virgin emboldens faith and lends credence to coherence of Christianity in time.

The provenance is Constantinople located now at the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario a Monte, Mario, Rome. Dimension 42.5 x 71.5 cm.

Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

Mary’s motherhood embraces us

Theotokos berlinghiero berlinghieri 1230The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God was just celebrated on January 1 and today is the first Saturday of January, a day in which we attend a little more to the devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is appropriate to stay close to the Mary in these early days of 2014 for it is Mary who will lead us into the arms of the Messiah. I came across this reflection on Mary by the Cistercian Father Blessed Guerric of Igny. As I have echoed so often before on these pages, a proper Marian theology always indicates a proper Christology. This Berlinghieri icon of the Theotokos (1230) illustrates what I think is the true Marian theology of our Church: to know Mary is to know, love and serve her Son. In the printed word, thanks to Blessed Guerric we have a great example of what the Church teaches: Mary always points to her Son and Savior; Christ is made known through the yes of Mary. Today, ask yourself, in our own body, do we say yes to Jesus Christ?

“One and unique was Mary’s child, the only Son of his Father in heaven and the only Son of his mother on earth. Mary alone was virgin-mother, and it is her glory to have borne the Father’s only Son. But now she embraces that only Son of hers in all his members. She is not ashamed to be called the mother of all those in whom she recognizes that Christ her Son has been or is on the point of being formed…Like the Church of which she is the model, Mary is the mother of all who are born again to new life. She is the mother of him who is the Life by which all things live; when she bore him, she gave new birth in a sense to all who were to live by his life. Recognizing that by virtue of this mystery she is the mother of all Christians, Christ’s blessed mother also shows herself a mother to them by her care and loving kindness. She never grows hard toward her children, as though they were not her own. The womb that once gave birth is not dried up; it continues to bring forth the fruit of her tender compassion. Christ, the blessed fruit of that womb, left his mother still fraught with inexhaustible love, a love that once came forth from her but remains always within her, inundating her with his gifts.”

Mary the Mother of God (Theotokos)

TheotokosThe beginning of the calendar year in the Missal of Paul VI is dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. The readings at Mass are still those connected with the older tradition of the Naming of Jesus, the circumcision of the Lord (according to the Mosaic Law). A new facet of the Incarnation of the Word. It is the eighth day since the Nativity. In the sacred Liturgy we commemorate the holy Child receiving the name Ieusha, Jesus, the Lord saves; the name given to us by the angel (Lk 1:31). What we get is a liturgical mess: is it a liturgical remembrance of Mary as the Mother of God, or the eighth day celebration of Jesus fulfilling the Law. The readings for this day of Christmastide give the clue, but I digress.

As a Marian feast day it seems appropriate to reflect upon what the dogma of the Theotokos (Mary, the Mother of God) means for us. To do so we need to look at a piece of Church history.

Much of the way we come to understand this dogma is to look at the problem that gave rise to a church council and a solemn acceptance of a Christology and a Marian teaching. Most of the early councils were called not by the Church but by the emperor. Historically speaking Pope Saint Celestine I did not personally attend the council but sent three representatives who knew his thinking and his expectations. Pope Celestine delegated Cyril to teach with pastoral sensitivity with the hope of brining the now famous and dissenting Nestorius back to the heart of orthodox Christianity.

By AD 431 the 50 year old theologian-monk  Nestorius, educated in Antioch known for his great capacity to move people’s hearts by preaching. He was elected as the bishop of Constantinople by Emperor Theodosius II in 428.

One of Nestorius’ interlocutors was John Cassian, a monk in Egypt and disciple of Saint John Chrysostom. Cassian is accorded the title of Father of Monasticism in France and prolific author. (He is revered in some Church circles as a saint.) It is Cassian who helps to refine our Christology and what was later to become believed in the dogma of Mary as God’s mother.

In history we know that it was Nestorius who agitated for a change in church teaching on Christology. Recall that all that is said of Mary is a Christological statement of belief. Hence, Nestorius was not merely wanting to make a change in what we believe about Mary but what we believe about Jesus Christ, Savior. Nestorius began to reconsider how his people understand the mystery that Jesus Christ is equally God and man.

According to Nestorius the people think the humanity of Jesus was divine; that the people do not think that God was born in history, that God was buried, and professed that the Mary, the ever virgin, as bringing God forth in the flesh – that she is the Mother of God, Theotokos. Rather, he said that the Blessed Virgin Mary should really be called – Christotokos – the one who brought forth Christ, the mother of Christ. With great vigor he denied Mary the title of Theotokos. There is a theological difference in Jesus from Christ.

Then, as today, many people, laity and clergy alike, may not be well schooled in the details of theological and philosophical thought, nor would they be able to say with precision why a particular point about God and the economy of salvation is true or false. What we often see is that the Christian faithful echo —and believe— what is credibly taught in catechism and from the pulpit. The Church’s credible witnesses and teachers are given incredible authority when they often have not earned such. “Father said thus and such. Who are you to say otherwise?”

The people, hence, may not have clearly understood all the doctrinal errors that Nestorius was propagating through his preaching, but many did detect his choice in an alternative view when he declared that Mary was not the Theotokos. Those who knew in their gut something was wrong rejected Nestorius’ false teaching. Sometimes true piety is stronger than theological disputation.

It was a letter from Cyril to Nestorius that set the council fathers to define in certain terms what the true faith of Christians was with regard to Jesus and His mother. The letter that was read to the bishops declares that the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, erred in his teachings. Cyril’s letter says,

“The holy Fathers do not hesitate to call the holy Virgin Theotokos, not in the sense that the divine nature of the Word took its origin from the holy Virgin, but in the sense that he took his holy body, gifted with a rational soul, from her. Yet, because the Word is hypostatically united to this body, one can say that he was truly born according to the flesh.” 

Then, Nestorius’ letter to Cyril was read to the bishops. Thereafter, Nestorius was unseated from his position as patriarch of Constantinople and excommunicated; some branded him as “the new Judas.”

The faithful’s love for Mary could be seen in their declaration, “Hagia Maria Theotokos” (Holy Mary, Mother of God) and “Praised be the Theotokos.”

Ours is a Savior who is the Eternal Word of God, born of Mary, the Mother of God.

Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Immaculate Conception with the Fathers“Let us celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary: let us adore her Son, Christ the Lord.” (Matins response)

Historically, our belief in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has its roots in the fifth century Church in Syria. Looking at the lex orandi tradition and the teaching of the Fathers, this doctrine had currency in the East and the West. Studies in historical theology that the Church in the East was more attune to this teaching about Mary in the Patristic times than the Church in the West. We know from what some Fathers said, like Saint Ephrem (306-373) to the Mother of God:  “Full of grace . . . all pure, all immaculate, wholly without sin, wholly without stain, wholly without reproach . . . virgin in soul, in body, in spirit.” Saint Andrew of Crete (650-740) even uses the expression  “holy conception” in reference to Our Lady; and Saint John Damascene (676-749) exclaimed:  “O admirable womb of Anne, in which developed and formed little by little an infant all-holy.” Among the Eastern Churches there is the liturgical celebration of Saint Anne conception of Mary, a feast that existed in the East as early as the eighth century. There are many Eastern churchmen who protest the connections made between the East and West but the announcement of salvation comes through the announcement to Saint Anne that she was going to bear a daughter destined for something incredible that would change world history; the very idea that the conception of Mary was in some way, a mystery, a holy event and person that could not not be intended for be for our salvation.

Hence, the theologians and Pope Pius IX could conclude their investigations in the 19th century by saying, “The illustrious monuments of tradition, of both the Eastern and Western Church, most convincingly testify that this doctrine of the immaculate conception of the most Blessed Virgin . . . always existed in the Church, as received from those who lived before and as marked with the character of a revealed doctrine” (Rome, Analecta juris pontificii, I, 1215).

later generations have tended to confuse the doctrine with the virginal conception of Christ and even gone so far as to assume that Catholics believe Mary had no need of redemption. The papal declaration of Blessed Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus, makes eminently clear, Mary, like each one of us, was redeemed by Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race. In the case of Mary, she had a exceptional in being without original sin and giving birth to the Savior.

Through the centuries theologians like Saint Bernard (1091-1153), Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) and Blessed John Duns Scotus (1266-1308) expressed various opinions about the teaching of the Immaculate Conception. Aquinas, for example, had some reservations about how to conceive of the teaching properly.

Blessed John Duns Scotus writes well of the Blessed Mothers as when he says that “Mary most assuredly needed Christ as a Redeemer, for she would have incurred original sin in the usual way from her parents, if she had not been preserved by the grace of the Mediator. Just as others needed Christ that sin already incurred might be forgiven by his merit, so she needed the preventive action of the Mediator all the more, that there might not be any sin to be incurred, and that she might not incur any.”

The Franciscan School (among whom we would count Saint Bonaventure, Scotus, Alexander of Hales,  William of Ware) prevailed with Pope Pius IX, at the behest of a majority of the bishops, formed a coetus (1851 to 1853) which then formed the solemn definition.

In 1854, the papal declaration,

“We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin, is a doctrine revealed by God and therefore to be believed firmly and constantly by all the faithful.”

The Latin: Declaramus, pronuntiamus et definimus doctrinam quae tenet beatissimam Virginem Mariam in primo instanti suae conceptionis fuisse singulari Omnipotentis Dei gratia et privilegio, intuitu meritorum Christi Jesu Salvatoris humani generis, ab omni originalis culpae labe praeservatam immunem, esse a Deo revelatam, atque idcirco ab omnibus fidelibus firmiter constanterque credendam. (Cf. Denz., n. 1641)

The pope also wrote,  “He [God] attended her with such great love, more than all other creatures, that in her alone He took singular pleasure. Wherefore He so wonderfully filled her, more than all angelic spirits and all the Saints, with an abundance of all heavenly gifts taken from the treasury of the divinity, that she, always free from absolutely every stain of sin, and completely beautiful and perfect, presented such a fullness of innocence and holiness that none greater under God can be thought of, and no one but God can comprehend it.”

For more info, see the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia or a briefer review of the teaching by Fr William Most. But nothing will substitute your reading of the 1854 Apostolic Constitution of Pope Pius IX, Ineffabilis Deus.

The nineteenth century Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins who was devoted to the theological teachings of Scotus, in his poetry likened Our Lady to the air we breathe. Catholics would recall that many (perhaps all) of the founders of religious orders had profound love for the Holy Theotokos. In Saint Benedict it presumed that a monk or nun would be devoted to Mary. As Catholics we are privileged to be in the communio of heaven where the witness of the Blessed Mother and the saints (a world of sign and symbol), not only because of the proximity to the Mystery, but they point the way to God.
Consider what Hopkins has to say:

Mary Immaculate,
Merely a woman, yet
Whose presence, power is
Great as no goddess’s
Was deemèd, dreamèd; who
This one work has to do—
Let all God’s glory through,
God’s glory which would go
Through her and from her flow
Off, and no way but so.

The Sixth Provincial Council of Baltimore (May 10, 1846,) decreed that Mary Immaculate should be venerated as Patroness of the United States of America, and by February, 1847, it was approved by the Holy See. About seven years before the official declaration showing that the Church did, in fact, hold to Mary being immaculately conceived. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, pray for the USA, and for us.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]
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